Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Person standing still in front of a mural of a sneaker while cars zoom past. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.

This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.

Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”

A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.

Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.

I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.

One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.

The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

A bat hanging upside down in a cave. Photo credit http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2017/03/maternity-cave-by-michele-leavitt/
The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.

Writing on Politics: Part 2

It’s been a political couple of weeks for me in terms of writing. In addition to an op-ed for the Washington Post, I also wrote an op-ed for my local newspaper in support of a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution that would restore voting rights to most Floridaians who’ve been convicted of a felony.
Second Chances for Gville Sun
If you’re interested in writing for your local paper, the good news is that in most smaller markets, local newspapers will print editorials by citizens who write reasoned articles about relevant area issues. The bad news is that most local papers don’t offer payment to writers who aren’t on staff.

For me, writing occasional pieces for my local paper is a way of doing community service. I’m supporting local journalism, and offering perspectives I think are needed. In the past, I’ve written about the shameful history of lynching in our region and the necessity of training older workers for sustainable jobs.

I was motivated to write the current piece because the 21st century’s trend of mass incarceration is a travesty. Today’s criminal “justice” system is far more predatory and punitive than it was when I practiced as a public defender in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But two things have stayed the same: most of the people involved with the system are addicts or alcoholics, and prison doesn’t work.

Family has been another motivator for me. People who’ve been convicted of crimes find it very difficult to start over once their sentences are wrapped up, as I know from watching my brothers, nieces and nephews struggle to stay clean after being in prison.

If you’d like to write for your local newspaper, get in touch with the op-ed editor to find out if they print citizen articles. You can find contact info for the editor by consulting the paper’s masthead, or by simply calling the paper. Ask the editor what he or she is looking for in terms of word count, and if they have other guidelines. Then put your talent and skill in service of local journalism.

Write on.

Writing on Politics

Like many people in America, I’ve been following the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. We all bring our experience to the table when analyzing the news, and I’ve been looking at the issues raised by these hearings as both a feminist and a former trial attorney.

Sometimes, anger motivates me to write. I want to figure out why I’m angry, what I can do about it, and whether my anger is valid. I mean “valid” in the logical sense.

This article, published last week by the Washington Post, concerns something I’ve been angry about since I was in law school: special terminology that sets alleged sexual assault victims apart from alleged victims of other crimes. As I note in the article, you never hear alleged robbery victims referred to as “the accuser,” and yet, this is the norm for the media in cases of sexual assault.

WaPo 2018-9-27

Poetry in Form: Prose Poems

Fungi circling a tree. Photo by Michele Sharpe
Pure-of-mind formalists might argue that the prose poem is not written in form at all, and some poets and critics have argued that prose poems aren’t poems — they are prose.

Controversy continues to rage on, but the two most authoritative American sources for information on poetry provide similar definitions

The Poetry Foundation defines the prose poem as:

A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See Amy Lowell’s “Bath,” “Metals Metals” by Russell Edson, “Information” by David Ignatow, and Harryette Mullen’s “[Kills bugs dead.]”

The Academy of American Poets defines the prose poem as:

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

Labels seem to me to have a limited use. In my 30+ years of activity in the poetry community, I’ve seen the lines between poetry and prose continue to blur. In fact, some journals now expressly solicit work that defies easy labelling. They call it hybrid work.

As a recovering formalist and fuddy-duddy, I’m okay with saying that I doubted the prose poem once myself. But one day a subject and an image seemed just right for the prose poem (I admit it) form.

This baby below was originally published in the now-defunct but engaging magazine concīsThe “bastards” in the title doesn’t refer to nasty people. It refers to the original use of the word: people born out of wedlock, like me and many of my fellow/sister adoptees. For more on the adoptee rights movement, check out Bastard Nation.

Family Trees for Bastards

1. Dead so long, you can see right through them. The branches fell first, then the crown, then the bark sloughed off like snakeskin, and the cores collapsed, leaving suggestions of strong columns spun upward in helix fashion. Below the shifting leaf litter and sand, roots entwine with limestone. What’s left has put on the pocked and scored look of karst, but a tree remains a tree.

2. Dead, but still intact, this one has some juice for chalk-white fungi spiraling around its trunk. Shelves for tree frogs, pale question marks, frilled platters for dolls.

3. Still alive, this one ripped the floor with it. New name: windthrow. Had something loosed its anchorage and prepared it to let go? A hole opens in the canopy, saplings stuck in the pole stage wake. The earth that ripped with the tree, once part of a forest floor, now named a tip-up mound.

4. Pine cone. Alone on the floor, waiting for a fire to free its seeds. So it can start over.

Poetry on Environment

Butterfly on blossom. Photo by Stephen Mulkey.

Like many baby boomers, I recall a time when an unusually warm spring day was something to relish, not cause for anxiety about climate change.

My spouse, scientist Stephen Mulkey, is fond of saying, “Weather and climate are not the same thing,” but it’s natural for folks to experience weather as a harbinger of good or bad fortune, or of the changes to come.

The rainbow, the stormclouds, the hurricane, the cloudless sky, the tornado — all these have an emotional resonance for us. Because climate change is so centered on prediction, we can’t help but tie weather and climate together.

The industrial revolution sparked an interest in preserving the natural environment, an interest that continues today. One poem specifically in response to the industrial revolution is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who saw miracles in Nature and his God’s hand in all of those miracles.

Today, there are a number of magazines centered on environmental concerns that publish poetry. These include OrionTerrain, and Ecotone, to name a few.

The day the American government vowed to withdraw from the Paris Accord, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change published a new issue (28.2), which includes my poem, Gift Horse. I admit to being influenced by that science dude I’m married to!

Gift Horse

Mid-century, an early spring meant
taking off our shirts between the dunes in April
,
desperate as we were to air our skin out
after months cocooned in wool. 
Even the sand
felt good, scratching our backs. 
We crossed our arms
behind our heads and watched the mare’s-tail clouds
brush the blue from the sky
. Those stretches
of mild weather out of season — 
such gifts,
we never thought to check their teeth.

Poetry in Form: Sapphics

“A woman walking in the sea in a white dress, as the water reflects the Rarotonga sunset” by Luke Marshall on Unsplash

Sapphics, as you might guess, are named for the ancient Greek poet Sappho. The form follows a strict metrical pattern that does not come naturally to me. Former poet laureate Kay Ryan once said at a reading. “I am a slave to rhyme.” Well, I am a slave to the iamb, and the Sapphic meter seems weird.

But it seemed like the perfect form for a particular poem.

Sapphics are written in four-line stanzas. The contemporary Sapphic metrical pattern for poets who write in English sounds like this:

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da da DUM da

In contrast, the more common iambic pattern goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

Why did I choose to write in an ancient Greek Sapphic form? It started with undergoing interferon treatment for hepatitis C. (Coincidentally the word “hepatitis” comes from the Greek.) The treatment gave me many nasty side effects, but the scariest one was that it wiped out the poetry part of my brain for a year.

Happily, a breakthrough came when I visited The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. This museum, in the lavish former home of the circus magnate, has a Renaissance-style sculpture garden with a number of colossal statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

But the colossal that struck me like a thunderbolt was a replica of the Rape of Proserpina (a/k/a Persephone) by the Italian sculptor Bernini. It depicts Pluto (a/k/a Hades), the god of the underworld, abducting the virgin Proserpina.

Looking up at the colossal statue, I was astonished to see that a paper wasp had made a nest in Proserpina’s crotch. A metaphor occurred to me — the first that had popped into my head in a year. But more amazingly, when I got home and started researching wasps, I learned that their Latin name is hymenoptera — after “hymen,” the tissue that is broken when a woman loses her virginity.

What a gift that was. The poem was originally published in the online journal Per Contra.

The Wasp Garden

A Sapphic verse on a copy of The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini at the
Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

“Rape of Proserpine,” the colossus’s sign reads,
“Stone Variant,” on the theme “young girl some
God of Hell abducted became a queen.” Her
Rape is looming, yet

Here, she’s held aloft, as if ready to fly, with
Pluto’s arms her launch. See where haughty paper
Wasps, the Hymenoptera, built their nesting
Site between her not-

Yet-queen-thighs, a fortress of humming rapture,
Stingers sharpened, ready to shield them both from
Brutal injuries and regrets, to put an
End to myths like these.

Poetry: How to Read the Words

“Positive bright white neon white sign on dark background, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

 

 

First, relax.

Speak the poem out loud.

Pay attention to the words.

All over the world, poetry was originally an oral art form.When only the elite could read and write, poetry was the art form of the people. People, poets and otherwise, memorized poems and recited them. The people reciting and the people hearing the poems all experienced the pleasure of poetry: its narratives, its meter, its rhymes, its imagery. No one felt left out.

During certain periods in history, evil powers (am I exaggerating?) conspired to make poetry inaccessible to the masses. They wanted to turn poetry into an elite venture.

But over and over again, poetry fought back. In the 1990’s, for example, the poetry slam was a powerful phenomenon that brought poetry’s power back to public venues and people who didn’t have (or want) college degrees. The New Formalists pushed for a revival of rhyme and meter, two elements of poetry that create pleasure. In America in the 21st century, poetry has risen up again as a political force as writers and audiences fight back against political and social oppression.

Poetry is powerful, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

You might have heard that all interpretations of a poem are valid. That’s not true; poems must be read with attention to their words, and they mustn’t have meanings slapped on them willy-nilly.

But all great poems are open to multiple interpretations. Complexity is an element that makes poetry powerful, and complexity results in multiple meanings.

It’s okay to have a different reaction to a poem than someone else. Here’s an example of a poem that readers often have quite opposite reactions to: “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

[Could there be an invalid interpretation of this poem? Sure: It’s about a pink dinosaur roaming over mountains in search of a candy bar. The words of the poem certainly don’t bear that out.]

Back when I taught literature classes, I often chose this poem as part of the curriculum because the words of the poem do bear out two opposite interpretations. And more. Students usually argued about whether:

  • This is a poem about a warm and loving father-son relationship, or
  • This is a poem about an abusive father

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally positive connotations: Dizzy, waltzing, romped.

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally negative connotations: Scraped, battered, death.

Then there are words that can be taken positively or negatively, depending on the reader’s context: Whiskey, unfrowned, dirt, clinging.

Sometimes, a poem can tell you something about yourself. Sometimes, it can tell you something about an “other.” Sometimes, it even widens your understanding of the human condition.

In my classes, students batted this poem back and forth. It was a great delight to me when they concluded, as a group, that a relationship could be both violent and tender, that the father could be a hard-working mechanic who stopped off for a quick drink on his way home before romping with his kid, and a habitual, unkempt drunk whose unpredictable ways were frightening to a child.

Human beings are usually not one thing or another, wholly evil or wholly good. Complexity. Poetry can sing about that to us. All we have to do is pay attention to the words.

Poetry on Weather

“A hurricane or storm over Yemen” by NASA on Unsplash

Like most people in 21st century America, I’ve lived through a good bit of weather: historic blizzards, historic heat waves, historic hurricanes, historic droughts, historic rains. One thing I’ve never experienced personally is a tornado, but I’m okay with that.

Weather has been a rich subject for poets across all boundaries. No matter our country, continent, time, or season, we all experience weather in very intimate ways. If we commute, the rain or snow can tangle up our days; if we garden, the sun and rain can feed us; if we take our leisure time outdoors, the weather can delight us — or make us miserable.

No matter how old and cranky I get, I remain a fan of the British Romantic poets. Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley is, I admit it, a little adolescent (“A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”), but it still thrills me.

Remember “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind? 
Neither you nor I. 
But when the trees bow down their heads, 
The wind is passing by.

More modern poems about weather include Snow by Naomi Shihab Nye and Flood by Eliza Griswold.

Not surprisingly, poems “about” weather, whether old or new, are often about something else, too. Poets are devious.

Here’s one of my poems “about” weather, in this case, Hurricane Matthew, which raked the Southeast coast of America in 2016. It was originally published in Tuck Magazine, and picked up by a reporter for a regional South Carolina magazine who wrote an article about it, including an audio recording of the poem.